The Williamsport school bus tragedy raised awareness of the lack of safety at railroad crossings 60 years ago, but the problem continues to this day.
Six hundred ten people died and 1,923 were injured in 4,921 vehicle-train wrecks last year in the United States, according to preliminary figures compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration. In addition, 529 people died and 450 were hurt by trains while trespassing on railroad property.
The U.S. Department of Transportation last month launched a safety campaign dubbed, "Always Expect a Train." The idea is to educate people about the fatal consequences of collisions at rail crossings.
John Fitzpatrick, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, says about 170,000 highway-rail crossings still exist in the United States. Most don't have gates and blinking lights. However, he says, those features don't ensure safety; more than half the deaths in vehicle-train collisions occur when motorists drive through blinking lights or around gates.
"Most people wouldn't run through a red light," says Marmie Edwards, communications director of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit nationwide organization that promotes rail-crossing safety. "But they'll buzz right across a rail crossing because they don't think of it as an intersection."
As a result, she says, more people die in highway-rail crashes in a typical year than in commercial airline crashes.